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Emphysema

What is Emphysema?

Emphysema is a condition in which there is over-inflation of structures in the lungs known as alveoli or air sacs. This over-inflation results from a breakdown of the walls of the alveoli, which causes a decrease in respiratory function and breathlessness.

In emphysema, the lungs loose elasticity and are unable to fully expand and contract. This occurs because the air sacs cannot completely deflate, thus unable to fill with fresh air for adequate ventilation. Emphysema in children is usually caused by congenital abnormalities of the lung and alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency.

In emphysema, the patient can breathe in but breathing out is difficult and inefficient. The seriousness of emphysema varies greatly. Some persons with emphysema never reach a stage of incapacity and go through life with relatively little inconvenience, while in others, emphysema worsens until final degeneration of the ability to breath occurs.

Some patients with emphysema may also have black lung disease.

Symptoms of Emphysema

Early symptoms or emphysema include:

  • shortness of breath
  • a chronic cough
  • a bluish coloration of the skin caused by lack of oxygen
  • shortness of breath (chronic)
  • shortness of breath with mild exertion wheezing

Other symptoms that may occur with emphysema are: dizziness, difficulty, lying down anxiety, stress, impotence, fatigue, impaired ability to concentrate, excessive daytime sleepiness, and difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep.

What Causes Emphysema?

Cigarette smoking is the major cause of emphysema. Tobacco smoke and other pollutants are thought to cause the release of chemicals within the air sacs of the lung that damage the walls of the air sacs. When chemicals are released, a chemical imbalance occurs. There are many different reasons this chemical imbalance occurs. Smoking causes the imbalance as well as exposure to air pollution, and irritating fumes and dusts on the job.

Emphysema Statistics

  • 2 out of 1,000 people suffer from emphysema.
  • Males with emphysema outnumber females by 64%.
  • Emphysema ranks ninth among chronic conditions that contribute to lack of activity.

How Does Emphysema Occur?

Emphysema begins with the destruction or air sacs (alveoli) in the lungs. Each lung has many alveoli. Alveoli are the places where oxygen from the air is exchanged for carbon dioxide in the blood. The walls of the alveoli are very thin and fragile. When damage occurs to the alveoli, it is irreversible and results in permanent "holes" in the tissues of the lower lungs. As air sacs are destroyed, the lungs are able to transfer less and less oxygen to the bloodstream, causing shortness of breath. The lungs also lose their elasticity and the individual experiences great difficulty exhaling.

Emphysema doesn't develop suddenly. It occurs over years of exposure to cigarette smoke, air pollution, and irritating fumes.

Can Emphysema be treated?

Emphysema cannot be cured. Treatment is aimed at decreasing the severity of the symptoms. Doctors can help persons with emphysema live more comfortably with their disease.

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